How to Achieve Flow

Have you ever been working on something that's so enthralling that when you pause for a moment you suddenly realize that hours have passed?  It may be well past lunch and you're hungry, but your work session was productive, focused and you felt good about it.  Maybe you wrote ten pages of your novel, or completed a software routine, or wrote a jingle, or just painted a picture, but while you were working, it felt effortless.
"During single-minded work time, people are ideally in a state that psychologists call flow. Flow is a condition of deep, nearly meditative involvment. In this state, there is a gentle sense of euphoria, and on is largely unaware of the passage of time."

That passage is from "Peopleware" by Tom DeMarco & Tim Lister.  The book is a thesis on what later became one of the tenets of the Agile Manifesto, that individuals and interactions are valued over processes and tools.

They discuss the benefits of flow, which are:
  • Total focus, no interruptions
  • High energy work, maximum productivity
  • Finding passion and fun in the work
  • Minimal effort to continue working
This sounds great, but the question is "How do I achieve flow?"  Here are my tips for getting to a state of flow.

Before you start, listen to your inner voice and see if the task in front of you is really what you need to work on.
  • Make a list of ten things you have to do.
  • Prioritize them by urgency and value.
  • Cross off nine of the things.
  • The remaining item is what you need to work on.
  • Throw away the list so it doesn't distract you.
Next, evaluate your task. Is this something that you can do by yourself, or do you really need more research or conversation with other people?  Be honest, but flexible. If you think you can accomplish 80% of the task alone, then go for it.  On the other hand, if you only have 20% of the knowledge, then maybe you need help.  For now, let's assume you have enough resources to accomplish most of the task.

Now that you know what you're working on, and have the right knowledge, you are ready to begin working.

Steps to achieving flow:
1. Get your butt in the chair.
If you're not in your workspace, you're not going to get any work done.

2. Make sure you're comfortable.
Adjust your chair if necessary. Make sure you're not too hot or too cold and the light isn't blinding or too dim.  Get a snack and take a bathroom break before you start.

3. Prevent interruptions.
Hide your cell phone in a drawer. Turn off notifications in your web browser and email. Put your desk phone on standby. Close the office door. Turn your chair away from the window or TV.  Put up a "Do not disturb" sign.

4. Create an audio wall.
Play some background music to reduce distractions. Choose music that you know, but it may not be your favorite. I prefer jazz without vocals.

5. Give yourself permission to work.
Set a mental tickler that says: I am now focusing.

6. Just start working, even if it's not productive.
If you fear starting, write for 5 minutes about what you think you're going to work on. This acts as both a warm-up for the real work, and also helps organize your thoughts.

7. Relax.
Don't try to hurry flow. According to "Peopleware" it will take at least 15 minutes, maybe more.  If you're going to be interrupted in the next hour, you will need to go back to step #3.

8. Focus.
Ignore the voices in your head that lead to other tasks. You've already dealt with that.

9. Let go.
Don't edit yourself. Flow is like falling asleep. You don't realize you're in the spell until it's broken. There's time to edit later.

10. Start.

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